Saturday 31 March 2018

The Baby (1973)

Director: Ted Post
Writer: Abe Polsky
Stars: Anjanette Comer, Ruth Roman, Marianna Hill, Suzanne Zenor and David Manzy

Index: 2018 Centennials.

Ted Post, who would have been a hundred years old today, had a stellar career, gradually moving from the stage to television and eventually to film, where his fourteen features as director constitute a highly varied set of underrated gems. Choosing just one to remember him by is a difficult task indeed, as almost all of them would be perfect for this project, except perhaps the two in which he directed Clint Eastwood, Hang ’em High and Magnum Force, which are notably well known. The latter wasn’t his only sequel, as he also made Beneath the Planet of the Apes, but the rest are all standalones, often emphatically so. There’s The Legend of Tom Dooley, the old folk music standard turned into a film; The Harrad Experiment, a controversial comedy about sex in college; and Nightkill, a dark crime picture shot here in Phoenix. There’s Whiffs, a comedy about chemical warfare techniques being used to rob banks; 4 Faces, a compilation of four stories starring the same actor; and especially Go Tell the Spartans, a highly underrated Vietnam War picture.

I simply couldn’t resist The Baby though, which is as unlikely a feature as could be imagined for a director best known for hundreds of episodes of television westerns. Post was almost destined to find a career in the industry, having begun as an usher at the Pitkin Theater in Brooklyn, so caught up in what was on screen that some reports suggest that he would often forget to actually seat any of his customers. He tried acting, but it didn’t work out, so he shifted into directing plays, including a 1948 production of Dracula in Connecticut that starred Bela Lugosi. He kept this up during wartime, staging shows for the troops, but, by the fifties, he had found his way both into teaching, at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, and television, where the bulk of his credits are to be found. He was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in 1955 for one episode of Waterfront, a crime show set in the LA harbour, and a DGA Award in the same year for a different episode of the same show. A year later, he’d get another nod for an episode of Medic.

Unsurprisingly, he initially directed live plays for television but gradually found his way into westerns, a genre that he dominated for quite some time. After Zane Grey Theater in 1956, he’d move on to every other western show, directing 56 episodes of Gunsmoke and 24 of Rawhide, where he’d build a working relationship with Clint Eastwood; after making spaghetti westerns for Sergio Leone, Eastwood insisted that Post direct his American response, Hang ’em High. He was never a one trick pony though, directing anything he was asked, including four episodes of The Twilight Zone and no less than 179 of Peyton Place. His last TV work came as late as 1986, when he directed a TV movie take on Stagecoach, with the leads taken by the Highwaymen: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. His first features were made in the late fifties, beginning with The Peacemaker in 1956, but he really found his stride in the seventies, and this one is as seventies as it gets, so much so that it’s hard to grasp its genre.

The poster hints at a sexploitation look at fetishes, with a scantily clad young lady clutching a teddy bear and peeking into a large crib that contains a larger baby holding a hatchet; the tagline scrawled on the end of the crib reads, “What goes on in this nursery isn’t for kids!” Eventually, however, it’ll become a unique horror thriller, with all the players women except for Baby himself, the MacGuffin of the piece, who rarely becomes anything else. As it begins, though, we can’t help but read the film as a drama, of the crusading movie of the week type, with a social worker looking into a case that fascinates her and finding the details not remotely to her liking. She’s Ann Gentry, played by the wonderful Anjanette Comer, known for films as varied as The Loved One, The Battle of San Sebastian and Rabbit, Run, and she “made a special effort to get this assignment.” She tells the matriarch of the household she’ll be visiting that, “It was impossible not to be interested,” and that’s a great summary of the entire film too.
Here’s the setup. She’s visiting the Wadsworths, who have been living on county funds for years. Mrs. Wadsworth is a polite but dominant sort, believable as an overly concerned mother who isn’t but could easily be a mafia assassin in her copious spare time. She’s both confident and dangerous but also very measured, never one to leap to anger without it carrying an additional purpose. Ruth Roman, then as now best known for playing Farley Granger’s love interest in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, is clearly a force to be reckoned with as Mrs. Wadsworth and she’s as much why we’re immediately on Ann’s side as anything that the social worker does herself. There are two daughters: Germaine with her fascinating but always large hair, who makes a little money on a TV commercial here and there, presumably as a model; and Alba, an angry young blonde who earns a little coin teaching tennis at night, though we can’t help but wonder if that’s at least partly a euphemism. She seems the sort and the pigtails help.

And then there’s Baby. He doesn’t have another name, he’s always just Baby, even though actor David Manzy was 32 years young at the time. He crawls around in an oversize nappy because he isn’t toilet trained. Then again, he’s unable even to stand up, which prompts Mrs. Wadsworth to massage his legs daily to avert muscle deterioration. He can’t feed himself either, though one bizarre babysitting scene shows us that he understands full well where the milk comes from and he’s strong enough to get it. And, no, I’m not talking about the fridge, folks. The thing is that Ann doesn’t believe from the very outset that Baby is remotely as incapable as the Wadsworths make it seem and her fears and suspicions grow with the film. While previous welfare visitors showed up every six months or so, she’s there three or four times a week digging away to see what Baby can really do. Before long, she’s reporting up the chain that he’s completely capable but physically and mentally stunted, deliberately, through negative reinforcement.
While it’s easy to draw conclusions this early about where the story is going to go, we never lose sight of the fact that not one of these characters is either honest or open. They’re all hiding plenty, not least their respective secrets about what Baby personally means to them, and we find that we hang on their words, as much to figure out what they’re not saying as much as what they are. At the Greenview School for Exceptional Children, a place for developmentally challenged kids to develop, Ann explains a theory to the doctor that Baby has “been imprisoned by a sort of sick love.” Now, those words have multiple meanings and that sentence is accurate in at least three different ways. Psychologically, this is a surprisingly deep film, as everyone has their own reasons and their own sickness. I include Ann Gentry in that because it doesn’t take too long for us to realise that she has her own agenda too, even if it’s hidden. She’s clearly hurting, after the apparent loss of her husband, but that’s a subject she carefully avoids.

Watch enough films and you start seeing patterns. After all, there are only seven stories and Shakespeare wrote all of them. Watch enough detective shows and you’ll start identifying whodunit before they’re even introduced. Here, I was kept cleverly on the hop all the way to the very end, even though I’d succesfully figured out some of the things we weren’t being told, and I think that’s for a number of reasons. One is that we’re not used to seeing an entire feature in which men are relegated to having no meaning and everything is driven by women. Another is that scriptwriter Abe Polsky plays with the concept of heroes and villains, so that true roles are never easy for us to figure out. A third is that Ted Post keeps us guessing as to what genre he’s directing; drama patterns don’t look the same as horror movie patterns because the conventions are completely different. This is very much a horror movie except when it isn’t; how useful that statement fails to be should help you grasp how slippery this picture’s intentions are.
Everyone here is fascinating to watch. Even early on, when this could be a drama about benefits fraud, it has a dark edge to which each and every one of the actors contributes in a fascinating way. Mrs. Wadsworth is obviously dangerous. As we begin to wonder if she’s deliberately keeping her own son in an infantile state just so that she can claim benefits because of his retardation, we can’t help but wonder what else she might be capable of and shudder. Alba is angry and controlling. As we watch a wild sadistic streak emerge in her treatment of boyfriends, promising sexual favours to one beau if only he can keep a finger in a lighter flame for an entire minute—“I’ll do anything to get to paradise, Alba,” he whines, “but does it have to be in an ambulance?”—we wonder at the things she must do with Baby when they’re alone. Germaine is manipulative. As we realise how cleverly she can ask questions but not answer them, we wonder what she’s getting up to with Baby. She’s also strange enough for it to show in this company.

And Ann is obsessive. At one point, she’s invited over to the Wadsworths for Baby’s birthday party, a truly surreal event in which nobody really acknowledges the birthday boy at all. He’s furniture to them and they’re happy to smoke their pot and dance their psychedelic dances around him. Ann, oddly, finds herself sidelined into a game of darts, in which she plays so emphatically to win that her resolve feels like it might cut the air. Of all the four leads, she’s the most fascinating because we’re never quite sure if she has a brain or not. Half the time, she’s blissfully naïve, to the point that we can easily see her disappearing the way that a previous welfare visitor to the Wadsworths vanished without a trace. The other half, she’s blisteringly astute and we wonder if her naïveté is just another one of the many traps that she’s setting for the Wadsworths. And, while we realise very quickly indeed that she has a hidden agenda, we never quite fathom what she’s really doing or why.
Much of the film is a battle of wills between Ann Gentry and Mrs. Wadsworth, two formidable opponents indeed. It seems entirely appropriate that Anjanette Comer’s next film was Lepke, as a “nice Jewish girl” whom Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, the gangster head of Murder, Inc., plans to marry. She was a pert young beauty in The Loved One a decade earlier, but she’s showing her age here and that adds an urgency to her role that turns out to be rather appropriate. Ruth Roman was actually not known for darker roles but she nails this one absolutely. When things get down to the wire and it’s one against one, we still find ourselves inherently on her opponent’s side entirely because we can’t be on hers. As I write this, I fully acknowledge how weird this is, given that it all occurs around a thirtysomething baby. If you have a background in the movies of the early seventies, though, you’ll realise that the most bizarre thing here isn’t that this is about a grown up baby or that the grown women dominate the piece, but that it’s not schlock.

Many factors collided in the late sixties to cause the Hollywood studio bosses to realise that they had utterly lost the plot. Some of them include the rise of the counterculture, the demise of the Production Code, the war in Vietnam, the free love movement, the rise of independent film and an awareness of what world cinema was doing, but that still only scratches the surface. The result of everything at once was a period of unprecedented freedom for American film that ran from the end of the sixties to the arrival of the blockbuster. The Baby is unmistakeably a product of that period of freedom, including themes that would surely not have been considered at any other point, even for an independent production. Abe Polsky spent a year attempting to persuade Ted Post to direct this film, because it was such an edgy and dark story. I’m glad he did, because he does it justice in a way that few filmmakers of 1973 would have managed. This isn’t an exercise in excess, it’s an exercise in avoiding it and that’s to its benefit.
Somehow I think he did come around. His screen career ran from 1950, when he directed an episode of Danger, to 1999 and 4 Faces, his final feature, and it encompassed hundreds of hours of impressively varied entertainment. Yet he only acted once and it was in this film, as an uncredited player in the darts match at Baby’s birthday party. Maybe it just got under his skin, because it’s that sort of movie, easily watched but not easily forgotten, utterly a product of its time but one which speaks to us in ours as a fantastic slice of unique cinema. Even though he only made fourteen feature films, Ted Post left us a lot of that sort of thing, titles that slid under the radar but deserve rediscovery. Even though I chose this film to remember that impressive career, I really should take a look at Go Tell the Spartans too, because, like this film, whenever that one comes up for mention, it’s because someone found it, it knocked their socks off and they’re shocked at how they didn’t know about it sooner. And really, that’s not a bad legacy for Ted Post.

Ted Post, Director for Film and Television, Dies at 95 (by Paul Vitello for The New York Times)
Ted Post Obituary (by Ronald Bergan for The Guardian)

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